You’ve got to give it to Gov. Nikki Haley. Despite sagging state poll numbers that show her as less popular than President Obama, she played the media for all she was worth in the saga over appointing a replacement for retiring U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.
On Dec. 17 — 11 days after DeMint surprised politicos in Washington and South Carolina with news that he would step down four years early to take over as head of the conservative Heritage Foundation — Haley tapped first-term U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, as DeMint’s replacement.
Looking back, what was really interesting in the whole process is how Haley showed herself to be a master of dragging out the announcement so she could stay in the headlines, despite repeatedly saying she would make a quick decision.
Soon after DeMint’s announcement, speculation started immediately about whether Haley would try to take the seat herself. But Haley put an end to the conjecture by saying she would not resign so she could potentially take the seat. “My goal is not to make it drag out,” she told a radio reporter on Dec. 6.
The next day, Haley issued a statement that reiterated she’d make a quick decision, but in a “thoughtful and dignified” manner. Her choice, she said, would be someone cast in the conservative, tea party mold that she and DeMint embrace.
“I will appoint a person who has the same philosophy of government that Jim DeMint and I share,” the statement said.
That weekend, pundits had a ball, speculating about this member of Congress or that former elected official in DeMint’s position.
On the Monday after the DeMint announcement, Haley stepped back into headlines saying she wouldn’t hogtie the nominee by expecting him or her to be a lame duck “placeholder” for a 2014 election when voters will pick someone to serve the final two years of DeMint’s term.
“I do not want to deprive our state’s citizens of the chance to render their judgment on the appointee’s performance by way of their vote,” she said in another statement.
With reporters frothing at the mouth Tuesday, Haley teased them at the Boeing plant in North Charleston. She joked she had a big announcement, which turned out to be nothing about DeMint’s seat, but that “we make planes” at Boeing. But also that day, someone apparently leaked Haley’s short list of five contenders to the media, which set them off again like a pack of wild dogs.
“Only my husband knows what’s in my head right now, so I’ll leave it at that,” she later said. She wouldn’t answer questions about possible choices, noting, “There are numerous good people who could hold this position. South Carolina is not limited on good people.”
And the governor as media puppeteer pulled reporters along more. She said the decision on DeMint’s replacement likely would be made before Christmas. “I don’t want this to drag out,” she told a reporter. “I don’t think that is good for the people of South Carolina.”
Result: More positive stories on Wednesday, which deflected news about a Tuesday poll that showed Haley two points behind her 2010 challenger, Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, in a mock contest.
So what happened next? Haley kept the media in a lather with a comment that her pick wouldn’t need to have political experience.
“There is no question that I’m looking for a conservative person to fill those shoes, but we are never going to find someone as conservative and staunch as Jim DeMint,” she said after a state Budget and Control Board meeting.
By now if you don’t believe the governor was playing the media like a fiddle, guess what she did Thursday? She released mock vetting documents on Facebook rejecting home-grown comedian Stephen Colbert as a potential senator.
So kudos to Haley for not “dragging out” the process.
Fortunately for all of us, the grandstanding is done. While Scott is the winner, the big losers are the state’s Democrats, who will have to field two Senate candidates in 2014 when there are few people who are standouts now as challengers.